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Law for Business

Knowhow - guidance - precedents

19 NOV 2015

Menopause: The Last Taboo in the Workplace

Pam Loch

Managing Partner


Menopause: The Last Taboo in the Workplace
In the last 40 years there has been a significant increase in the number of women aged 16-64 years in employment - with a corresponding decrease in the number of men.

A number of factors including legislation and changes in the State Pension have led to more women remaining in the workplace for longer.

What it also means is that more women are remaining employed during the menopause. The impact of the menopause on some women can be severe and could potentially lead to being a disability. Yet we rarely talk about it in the workplace; is it the last taboo?

The medical definition for the menopause is the point at which women have their last period. This usually happens between the ages of 45 and 54, and is a result of the amount of oestrogen hormone falling. However, many of us are unaware that, prior to this point, women go through the perimenopause. This period may last a few months or several years before periods stop. Around 30-60% of women experience physical or emotional symptoms. Collectively we tend to refer to the menopause as including both the perimenopause and the menopause. To some extent this reiterates the lack of information and ignorance of what it is and the impact it can have in the workplace.

If you consider how many women are entering the perimenopause period and still working nowadays, it is no longer an issue we can avoid.

More women are re-joining the employment market as their children grow older, and this coincides with an increase in the State Pension Age for women leading to more women remaining in the workplace. An increase in the number of women remaining in the workplace has been encouraged by Government policies with the consequent impact on benefits. Consequently, it is more likely than not that there will be more women in the workplace going through the menopause in the foreseeable future. So why is the menopause such a taboo subject?

If we consider the main symptoms of the menopause you can start to appreciate perhaps why it is not discussed and how it can have a negative impact on a women's performance in the workplace. The main symptoms include:

  • hot flushes and night sweats
  • tiredness and sleep disturbance
  • mood swings
  • forgetfulness or lack of concentration
  • loss of interest in sex
Clearly there will be a variation on how it affects women. Some will experience mild symptoms, while others will have to deal with severe symptoms. Even the milder form, though, could impact on performance at work. Yet very few employers will be able to take this on board and make adjustments in, for example, a menopausal women's appraisal, because they are likely to be completely unaware the women is coping with these symptoms. Often the employee herself will not be able to express why she is behaving under par in comparison to her usual performance because she may also be unaware of why she is feeling this way.

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We have encountered situations where previously high-performing female directors or senior managers are suddenly being questioned about their performance and responding very defensively. Their response could also be an emotional one due to the menopause exacerbating the situation, and yet they are unaware why they are responding in such an alien way.

The menopause can also be triggered at an earlier stage either due to generic make-up for as a consequence of taking drugs like Tamoxifen for treating breast cancer. Rather than a gradual effect, there may be an immediate impact which could be severe and unexpected.

Employers rarely engage in a discussion with women about their emotional reactions for fear of being accused of sex discrimination or a general fear of discussing 'women's problems'. However, employers are missing out on an opportunity to ensure productivity is not adversely impacted on and potential problems are not being stored up for the future by acknowledging the existence of the menopause in the first instance.

The TUC has gone so far as to issue a Guide for Employers on how to support women during the menopause. It suggests simple steps which could easily be undertaken by employers if they are prepared to be more open-minded and recognise the benefits from being open about the menopause.

Suggested steps the TUC recommends employers should take include:

  1. Ensuring managers are trained to understand how the menopause can affect women and what adjustments need to be made to support them;
  2. Highlighting it as part of a wider health campaign and encouraging women to feel more comfortable discussing it with their managers;
  3. Being prepared to work more flexibly around menopausal women who may need more breaks during the day, including more frequent toilet breaks
The TUC and the teacher's union NASUWT also suggest ensuring ventilation is good, that electric fans are available, as well as access to cold drinking water.

As with all employees, employers owe menopausal women a duty to look after their health and safety at all times. Employers should consider undertaking a risk assessment to consider the working conditions for menopausal women.

Employers also need to be aware that some menopausal women will suffer from severe symptoms including depression. If the depressive condition meets the requirements under the Equality Act 2010, then the employee could be regarded as disabled. Under the Equality Act 2010, in order to be disabled, an employee must have 'a physical or mental impairment and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day to day activities'.

Certainly, the menopause could result in conditions which meet this definition. To date, though, we are not aware of any specific cases which have left to a finding of unlawful discrimination. Perhaps this could be due to these types of claims being avoided through the use of Settlement Agreements.

If the employee is disabled then the employer has an obligation to make reasonable adjustments which could include working from home, in addition to other reasonable changes the employer can make.

While there is some evidence of the male menopause, the jury is still out on this one. Therefore, it may be possible for a menopausal female to argue they have been subjected to direct or indirect sex discrimination; for example, if inappropriate comments are made about sweat patches or being 'at that age'. Again, there have not been cases, but it could be just a matter of time given the increase in the number of older women remaining in the workplace.

Given the potential here for litigation and contentious situations developing in the future, employers need to increase their awareness of the menopause and train their managers to recognise and manage the impact of the menopause.

Pam Loch is the managing director of Loch Employment Law, HR Advise Me and Loch Training.